SEF is a map to guide us on the road to success
In my early days as education minister, I made it clear to officials that I didn't like jargon. So I wasn't a natural convert to something called the school effectiveness framework (SEF). I have told education theorists and leaders that the idea of total system change is not one that easily communicates itself to the voters who pay their salaries. Nor will I use the phrase "tri-level reform" in my speeches.
But two things persuaded me of the importance of the SEF: first, the enthusiasm of a Rhondda head I rate very highly, Andy Henderson of Ysgol Hen Felin; second, seeing the framework and its professional learning communities extolled in Sandfields in Neath Port Talbot by headteachers, the director of education for the local authority, teachers and, interestingly, pupils.
I see heads as the key leaders of change in our school system. The SEF is there to help create high-performing schools with strong leadership, based on sharing best practice across Wales. I have given it three clear priorities: tackling literacy, numeracy, and challenging the impact of poverty on attainment. Estyn will be focusing on these in its common inspection framework, now aligned with the SEF. So the effectiveness framework is how we do business in Wales. It's here. Get used to it.
The SEF is in line with my mantra of better implementation, fewer initiatives and keeping it simple. It's also in line with the clear message given to us by Sir Michael Barber, former head of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, when I invited him to hold a seminar with my senior officials in January - that the best-performing school systems are those that focus on a limited number of priorities, such as literacy, and that availability of data is critical to reform. So comparative data is made available to families of schools. The SEF is in line, too, with the message of education theorists such as Michael Fullan - that policy-makers need to avoid "distractors", or what we could call distractions. No official in my department has ever suggested to me that we should drop the SEF. But if anyone has ideas on how to make things simpler - in relation to the SEF or any other areas - then email me: email@example.com.
There are few quick wins in education. Many policies that an education minister can implement only show success or failure long after that minister has departed. One of my first acts in the job was to commission the review of the cost of administering education, carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers, because I believed there were inefficiencies which stopped money getting to the front line. Ending those inefficiencies will take time, but we will work through them systematically. Our "front-line resources review" is now working on that in detail.
We are pledged to do what we can to protect school budgets, given the cuts we expect from Whitehall. We will tackle the funding gap with England over time. But funding can never be an excuse for poor performance. Welsh education has had budget increases that surpass those in many countries; whether our performance reflects that investment we will see in the PISA results later this year.
There are issues in the structure of delivery of education in Wales. Estyn has said four out of the seven local authorities it inspected last year had "important shortcomings" in the strategic management of education. I have said before that no one sensible would have invented 22 local authorities. But John Redwood did. That is why local authorities are getting a clear message from both myself and Carl Sargeant, the local government minister, about the need to collaborate.
We need support for schools, but we also need challenge. Under the leadership of Chris Tweedale, the feisty former head and erstwhile member of Michael Barber's Delivery Unit in Number 10 who heads our schools and children division, challenge is under way. Governance is next. The Assembly gained competence over school governance this year, and we will go forward on ensuring effective governance, with an initial Assembly measure covering some of these issues later in 2010. I believe governors should have a responsibility to learners and the community, rather than simply being cheerleaders for their own institutions.
We live in tough times and there are many challenges. The road ahead will be bumpy. A few will fall by the wayside. But the SEF is a route map that will guide us to better performance.
Leighton Andrews is assembly member for Rhondda and minister for children, education and lifelong learning.